Inside Story

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Europe’s, and Britain’s, migration fix

8 September 2015

An influx of neighbours is testing Europe’s unity and values, and Britain’s instinct for semi-detachment, writes David Hayes in London


“You possess whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck”: displaced Syrians arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on 7 September. Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP Photo

“You possess whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck”: displaced Syrians arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on 7 September. Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP Photo

“There are eyes missing on major stories,the photojournalist Ron Haviv once said. But not his colleague Nilüfer Demir’s. After four years of war in Syria, 250,000 dead, chemical attacks and barrel bombs, four million refugees and seven million displaced, it took Demir’s image of a drowned toddler lying on a Turkish beach to melt hearts, jolt media minds and – in Britain at least – tilt government policy. Her 6 am assignment at last concentrated the human impact of Syria’s nightmare for a worldwide audience. In Europe, its effect was also to highlight the immense humanitarian crisis that the continent is facing from the convulsions just beyond its borders. And that crisis has also become one of Europe’s internal politics.

The infant’s name was Aylan Kurdi. The inflatable dinghy carrying him, his elder brother Galip and their parents the short distance between two Aegean resorts – Turkey’s Bodrum and the Greek island of Kos – turned into a plaything for pitiless waves. Only the father survived, along with eight others of the twenty-three aboard the flimsy vessel. The bodies were washed up near where they had set out, allowing Demir to capture the desolating sight, including Aylan’s limp body being carried in the arms of a Turkish policeman.

By the time of burial hours later in Kobane, the majority Kurdish town in northern Syria lengthily besieged by Islamic State, the scene had so fired public sentiment that Britain’s prime minister David Cameron was overturning the restrictive stance towards refugee settlement he had reiterated as recently as 2 September, the very day of the tragedy. Britain, “a moral nation,” would continue to be guided by “head and heart,” and in that light was prepared to accept “thousands” of refugees from Syria while continuing to work for “long-term solutions” in the region.

Cameron amplified the government’s response in the House of Commons on 7 September, announcing that the United Kingdom would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, prioritising vulnerable children and orphans in the camps just across the country’s borders.

The u-turn comes at the end of a high midsummer when the government had survived a dispute with France over migrants seeking to enter Britain via the port of Calais, while insulating itself from the major flow of people into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Now migration, ever a dilemma for Britain’s rulers, and often a viscerally emotional one, is drawing a reluctant country closer to Europe’s political agony.

European leaders have had a tough year, dominated by Greece’s arduous debt imbroglio, the Islamic State threat, and Russia’s belligerence. A nuclear deal with Iran offers some respite, China’s financial shock more jitters. The eurozone’s anaemia persists. Elections in Finland, Denmark, Poland and Britain indicate a certain shift to the right. Populist anti-immigration sentiment finds noisy expression, and has a corrosive impact when able to foment or exploit social strains. (Its influence can be gauged by a pointlessly defensive controversy over the supposed pejorative connotations of the term “migrant,” which Al Jazeera English decided to discard.)

In this already febrile context, tens of thousands of people have been flocking towards Europe’s southern borders in search of safety and a better life. Across an extraordinary summer, their steady arrival – in large groups, clusters, ones and twos – is testing officialdom, challenging public and humanitarian agencies, provoking media argument, and disturbing the sleep of the comfortable.

This year’s surge has been a humanitarian “urgency” (to use Federica Mogherini’s term) in plain sight. Between January and August, 240,000 people lodged claims for asylum in Greece and 115,000 in Italy. Yet the phenomenon was concealed to an extent by Europe’s crises over Greece and Russia. As soon as the principle of a new Greek bailout deal was agreed on 11 August, after months of tortuous negotiations, it was as if the blinkers were ripped off. One slow-burn emergency was succeeded by another, and the latest looks even more taxing.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union’s commissioner of migration, calls it the “worst refugee crisis since the second world war.” By now a cliché, that description elides the years 1945–50, when millions of Germans fled or were violently expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the departure from Algeria of around 1.5 million (mainly French colons) in the wake of the 1954–62 war for independence. There are also more recent precedents in the hundreds of thousands who fled from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, from the Iraq war of 2003 and after, and from the conflicts that followed the Arab risings of 2011. It’s also true, however, that present levels will soar if the underlying causes of the movement are not addressed – and perhaps even then.

The human drama of the influx, widely reported from the moment of rescue on the Mediterranean or landing on its shores, had catapulted the issue to the top of Europe’s political agenda weeks before the tragedy of 2 September. The calm intent of many survivors is palpable. Most thread their way along one of two established routes: overland to western Turkey and thence into Greece, or to the north African coast and then via a Mediterranean crossing. The latter is perilous at every stage: many suffer lengthy imprisonment and terrible abuse at the hands of smuggling and trafficking gangs, followed by the risks of a fragile, overcrowded boat. Some 2600 died in the first eight months of 2015, says the UNHCR, while 300,000 made it to the other side, compared to 219,000 in the whole of 2014.

Enmeshed in systems of violence and corruption, seeking a margin of hope and freedom, those in flight are living proof of the words of the eleventh-century Sufi mystic, Al-Ghazali: “You possess whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.”

Yet there are also ferries arriving daily on the Greek mainland after a short hop from Aegean islands, unloading dozens of families, mostly Syrians, many looking relaxed in backpacker attire. If the scene seems discordant when set against the horror of Syria’s implosion, it also highlights the hard-to-compute diversity – of experiences, backgrounds and motives – across this epic event. To sleepless Europeans, this one at least, it can feel like switching channels between The Killing Fields and The Sound of Music.

In short, Europe and its “neighbourhood” (in the European Union’s lexicon, a legal and normative term as well as a geographical one) are today entwined in a vast, unplanned embrace of multiple and complex dimensions.

The exodus – Fraser Nelson of the Telegraph calls it “the great migration” – has many triggers. Syria’s war is draining the country, as is repression in Eritrea. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia to Nigeria, with all their side-effects (state breakdown, loss of home and livelihood) encourage those who can to flee. More personal factors can play a role: frustrated hopes and professional ambitions, a desire to help or join family. The influence of networks promising to get you across can be a powerful inducement, especially where legal routes to migration are absent or diminishing.

In the receiving European countries, actual or potential, responses are similarly varied. There is practical compassion from international vessels and regional officials, from residents of frontline islands such as Italy’s Lampedusa or Greece’s Lesbos, from NGOs such as Doctors without Borders, and even on occasion from beach tourists. Over the weekend of 5–6 September, Austrian and German citizens, as well as authorities, extended a warm welcome to refugees who had endured five days of chaos and maltreatment in Hungary (a welcome also given by Hungarians, notwithstanding the cold attitude of the country’s right-wing government).

Equally, frustration is widespread in Greece, Italy and Malta at perceived lack of solidarity from European partners to the north, leaving overburdened local staff to handle a logistical cascade with few resources. A blind eye is turned when new migrants depart northwards without formal registration, in breach of a European Union rule – the “Dublin protocol” of 1995 – that requires them to apply in their country of arrival. The protocol, whose varying monikers (“convention,” “regulation,” “mechanism,” “procedure”) are a micro-study in the intricacies of EU legalism, expired on 24 August, when Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel said that all Syrian asylum claims could be lodged in her country. The Syrians’ odyssey now had a promised land.

In turn, the crisis has exposed a related element in Europe’s legal architecture: the area of passport-free travel across twenty-two EU states (and four non-EU ones) established by the “Schengen convention,” effective from 1995. This built on an agreement made a decade earlier, and deepened the commitment to free movement that had been part of the proto-EU’s founding vision in the 1950s. If Dublin is (or was) an obstacle to that majority of migrants who have no wish to linger in their place of landfall, Schengen is an opportunity to head straight towards their destinations of choice in northwest Europe – mainly Germany and Sweden –without being deterred by border checks or controls.

Even before the current crisis, Germany and Sweden were the primary destinations of choice: in 2014, they received 25 per cent and 18 per cent of the European Union’s asylum claims respectively. (Britain is also a desired journey’s end, though its “opt-out” from Schengen makes it harder to reach.) Many newcomers to Greece reach the two countries by traversing non-EU Macedonia and Serbia, then proceeding via Hungary, another EU/Schengen state. But from late August, as numbers and temperatures rose, the contract between unregistered migrants and indifferent states broke down. Macedonia, briefly, and Hungary halted trains and blocked access to stations, leading to ugly clashes and further distress for exhausted travellers.

Hungary went further, building a coiled-wire fence along its 175 kilometre border with Serbia and preventing onward movement to Austria. The fence has a farcical aspect – it is easily breached or sidestepped (though is now being reinforced), peters out where Hungary meets Romania, and has no effect on train travel. But from the country that was a pioneer in allowing free movement to the West as communism collapsed in 1989, its symbolism is ominous – and not least for Schengen, which in enshrining the freedom to travel, study and work across borders also unified a continent psychologically and even culturally. (A Eurobarometer survey confirms that more young Europeans identify this freedom with the European Union than anything else.)

Anxiety in Europe about the potential scale of this latest great trek is sharpest in the post-communist countries that entered the European Union in 2004. None has gone as far as Hungary has, but they are averse to overmuch “burden-sharing” (another EU pillar). Slovakia announced on 20 August that it would not accept Muslims, and Poland that it would favour persecuted Christians. Hungary’s combative prime minister Viktor Orbán, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 3 September, condemned the European Union’s “misguided immigration policy” and called those in flight “illegal aliens” of a “different religion and culture.”

Such sentiments bear on the key proposal for the European Union’s summit of interior ministers on 14 September, now being feverishly negotiated: to allocate refugees throughout the union’s twenty-eight states via a population-based quota. This is supported by the European Union’s big players (Germany, France and Italy, though not Britain, which in any case has an “opt-out” on immigration matters) but opposed by Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. An east–west split joins the south–north one. Europe works by compromise, but the edges are fraying.

The trouble for Europe is magnified by the novelty of this mass flight. In part, again, that’s because of the range and depth of the forces that propel it. They include not just war, dictatorship and economic insecurity but longer-term trends in environment, resource depletion and demographics. These, too, will continue if unchecked. A new UN report, for example, estimates that Africa’s population will quadruple to four billion by 2100, putting the continent on a par with Asia, and making further economic leaps in the continent essential.

The shaping influence of technology is also striking. This is a networked migration with mobile devices at its heart. The smartphone is the most vital piece of equipment of every refugee – and every smuggler and trafficker. At every stage of the journey, routes are arranged, money transferred, maps shared, news from back home and upfront accessed, risks assessed.

Thousands are negotiating their way through two regimes: “Traffickistan,” ruled by smuggler–mafia groups that extract payment, direct movement, intimidate and discard; and “Europe,” both the European Union and individual states, with their confused mix of security and humanitarian rules, deterrent policing and at-sea rescue, procedural fixity and reactive energy. Victimhood and agency, as ever in the history of refugee experience, are intertwined at every level.

Many on the move, from Syria and Eritrea for example, are young, educated and wired. And they have a plan from the instant their feet land on Europe’s soil, which involves going north: towards work and educational opportunities, social protections, life chances and, often, family members. They are choosing Europe, and which countries to live in, more than being chosen. The transition from suffering neighbours to savvy European proto-citizens has already begun, in the process making parts of the European Union’s legal architecture resemble a house of cards.

In a fluid situation, Germany – as so often in modern Europe – is pivotal. Angela Merkel’s decision to give all Syrian refugees the right to claim asylum in Germany reverberated across the continent, not least because she also announced that 800,000 such bids were expected this year (compared to 173,000 in 2014, which itself was four times Britain’s 37,000).

The chancellor, as Klaus Neumann points out elsewhere in Inside Story, has also been prepared to face down domestic opposition in a language of defiant principle. “There is no tolerance for those people who question the dignity of others, no tolerance for those who are not willing to help where legal and human help is required,” this daughter of a Lutheran pastor told xenophobic demonstrators outside a migrant centre on 26 August. And five days later she repudiated the stance of official Poland and Slovakia: “I believe that our values in Europe are based on the dignity of every individual, without starting to say, ‘We don’t want Muslims, we are a Christian land.’”

This initiative, and Merkel’s call for EU-wide solidarity to meet the emergency, is supported by most of the German public, many of whom are active in welcoming the new arrivals with food, toys and even shelter. Her stance has also been greeted as an uplifting contrast to parochial (or worse) reactions elsewhere. In Britain, many scorn prime minister David Cameron’s reference in July to a “swarm” of migrants crossing into Europe, and foreign minister Philip Hammond’s in August to those seeking an entry point at the French port of Calais as “marauders.” No wonder that fervent media acclaim for Merkel, and indeed Germany, is spiced with envy: why can’t our leaders show comparable largeness of spirit? (“The generosity of Germany somehow seemed shaming,” writes the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour. “Shame” and “shameful” are the ubiquitous sledgehammer words of recent days.)

There are spots on this sun, however. Germany’s charitable approach is also being criticised by some European partners as an inducement that would spell more administrative disorder and unknowable costs. At home too, the present positive mood towards the influx is sure to become more complicated as its pressures grow.

Merkel is also managing internal political constraints, including the question of how she can keep her Christian Democrat Party ahead of her Social Democrat coalition partner. And the fact that Germany needs productive immigrants to counter its ageing population and fuel its successful export-oriented economy is also a vital factor. (Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, projects a three million fall in Germany’s population by 2040, and a nine million rise in the United Kingdom’s.)

Also relevant is the fact that Germany shows relatively modest interest in addressing refugee crises where they originate, far less in getting involved in the campaign against the Islamic State or efforts to end Syria’s torment (all admittedly intractable). Such factors and choices underline that Germany is, like any democratic state, a mixture of “normal” and “exceptional,” neither paragon nor pariah. But they also shows that action in one area may have consequences, or be combined with inaction, elsewhere. That said, no one can fail to be struck by the contrast between Berlin’s and Budapest’s policy responses and attitudes in these tumultuous weeks for modern Europe, nor minimise Angela Merkel’s enlightened statements.

Yet there is another Germany-related concern in this moment that recalls Heinrich Heine’s famous couplet: Denke ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht (“Should I think of Germany at night, it puts all thought of sleep to flight”). Merkel’s Germany is now, it seems, at the centre of every major European policy. Greece’s endless debt crisis showed this in full. It is now a source of strain on all sides.

For one thing, the notional executive body of European governance – the Brussels-based commission – is being overshadowed, a reality underlined by the pallid performance of its president, Jean-Claude Juncker (who was chosen in 2014 by EU insiders partly for his mediocrity). Although he is announcing the commission’s own plan to distribute refugees on 8 September, the real action is elsewhere. Germany’s very dominance in European counsels, with France its chief ally, means that the union’s tilt in an “intergovernmental” direction – rather than the “supranational” one of its most ardent advocates – is accelerated, building in tensions that are evaded rather than addressed.

In a fractious context, Berlin’s invocation of “solidarity” can come over in other EU capitals as a reproach. More deeply, any attempt to create Europe in the image of a single country, or to align Europe’s values too closely with a national interest, may stoke political division. The lamentable story of the eurozone is a warning here. But what would a non-German-led Europe look like? Or indeed a post-Merkel one? For if her place as a major leader of the European project is secure, the worry is that she ends up as the last.

Where is Britain in this European epic? Until 2 September, an easy answer would have been: sitting in inglorious isolation, fortifying its island defences, and keeping any refugee entrants to a minimum. The viral photo of Aylan Kurdi, the media and public reaction, and David Cameron’s awkward but in the end somehow smooth policy reversal (in its way emblematic of his entire premiership) have redrawn the coordinates.

The nature of that change is still being worked out, as various constituencies – politicians and media, aid agencies and the public – adjust to a constantly mutating crisis, and one now being driven largely by the migrants themselves. The concentrated debate of these days has had four main themes: how many Syrian refugees Britain should take, greater scrutiny of Britain’s international role (including its membership of the European Union), caution against policy being driven by self-centred emotion (which in any case can turn rapidly), and a renewed concern with the desperate situation in Syria itself.

Among these, there has been tangible surprise at the revelation – which was no secret to anyone with a particle of interest – that Britain has spent over £1 billion on aid to Syrian refugees over four years, making it the world’s second-highest donor after the United States. The neglected detail has become a belated part of the government’s case that the great migration must be addressed “at source,” which is also to say that it wants to bypass the smugglers and traffickers who receive thousands of dollars from those now seeking to reach Europe (including the father of Galip and Aylan Kurdi, who paid €4000, or A$6400, for four places). Thus the 20,000 refugee Syrians will be brought directly from camps such as Zaatari in Jordan, which Britain has helped fund. So Britain, like Germany, is acting according to its nature, their differences rooted – as with every European state – in history, geography and politics.

The “at source” emphasis also usefully – from the government’s position – slides into an argument for military intervention. The Royal Air Force is already supporting US-led air strikes against Islamic State; one of its drones killed two British-born fighters from the group in Syria in August. This will make hardly a dent in a grinding, many-sided war. But the refugee tragedy is redirecting some attention to Syrians’ suffering under the prolonged genocidal assaults of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Islamic State, and indeed to Eritreans’ under Isaias Afewerki, and that is welcome.

Will this shift in emphasis lead anywhere? Two years ago, on 21 August 2013, Assad’s regime shelled Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus controlled by opposition forces, killing hundreds of civilians with the lethal nerve agent sarin. A jerky film of the aftermath shows a very young boy lying on his back, shaking and foaming at the mouth. He is one of the 12,000 children killed in Syria’s war. Such hideous scenes have been played out many times before and since, almost always with no cameras present.

Europe, including Britain, bears a share of responsibility for repeated failure to halt Syria’s descent into barbarism. The great exodus is also a lesson in the consequences of inaction. Now Syrians, as well as other nationalities, are reacting to the loss of their country by choosing to live, in Immanuel Kant’s words, “unavoidably side by side” with Europeans. How Europeans respond will shape the fate of their continent and their neighbourhood for generations. •

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Multicultural heartland: Craig Laundy (right) and prime minister Tony Abbott speak to members of Australia’s multicultural media at Strathfield Town Hall in August last year. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image

Multicultural heartland: Craig Laundy (right) and prime minister Tony Abbott speak to members of Australia’s multicultural media at Strathfield Town Hall in August last year. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image